This website was archived on July 21, 2019. It is frozen in time on that date.

Sonya Mann's active website is Sonya, Supposedly.

Context Is Vital

Different people have different perspectives and their life experiences are not the same as yours. This feels like an obvious statement, more along the lines of “duh” than “revelation”, but every time I’m prompted to think about it, I feel wowed by the diversity of human viewpoints. In a visceral way.

It’s actually kind of unsettling — my intuitive schema for how the world works depends on most people perceiving things similarly to me, and I have to constantly tear down that default model and build a more accurate one. Brains are not good at diverging from their basic assumptions, at least not without significant repetition, so it’s a struggle.

Compassion is difficult to maintain, but it’s useful. I would even say that empathy (or at least a semblance thereof) is one of the more high-impact skills a person can learn. It vastly improves your ability to communicate, which also makes you better at design!

Colorful street art in Lima, Peru. Photo by McKay Savage.
Colorful street art in Lima, Peru. Photo by McKay Savage. Observe the mishmash of styles!

Kindness Makes Communication Work Better

Niceness is pragmatism.

Tech-culture podcast Exponent came back from its summer hiatus on the 6th. In the most recent episode, hosts Ben Thompson and James Allworth discussed Amazon’s work culture in reaction to that now-infamous New York Times article. Their conversation touched on the necessity of soft skills even in creative environments where solid ideas take precedence over everything else.

Successful companies set high standards and enforce them. They must! There is no other way to ensure excellence. Trade-offs are inherent to this arrangement — you can’t care profoundly about your professional results, work devastatingly hard to build something amazing, and still spend plenty of quality time with your wife and kids. The laws of physics forbid it — you can only be in one place at a time. If you’re at the office, then you’re not tossing a frisbee around in the backyard.

office drone lyfe
Illustration by Yue Wu.

More crucially, competitive companies develop and cherish workplace cultures that demand people to identify and demolish subpar ideas. When you prop up bad suggestions to make their progenitors feel good, you guarantee a future of low-quality initiatives. Next stop, loss of market share! It makes sense that brilliant executives want to stamp out the impulse to be nice. Except wait, no, it only makes sense superficially.

Allworth called this attitude “the primacy of ideas”. He pointed out that brutal honesty about the merit of any proposition favors “thinkers” over “feelers”. We INTJs and the like are able to maintain some emotional distance, to take a step back and rationally examine feedback. (Which doesn’t mean we aren’t hurt by criticism — Thompson added that this type of person also views their work as their source of human value. If the output is deemed inferior, we judge ourselves very harshly.)

Allworth explained that a workplace culture hostile to people who prioritize relationships will end up being a monoculture, alienating the voices of potentially useful employees and limiting diversity of thought. Well… yeah. It will.

be well at work :)
Illustration by RSO.

I’m probably reacting emotionally (ha) and not being fair to either Thompson or Allworth, but it was frustrating to listen while they grudgingly came to the conclusion that there’s value in being nice. I can’t help but think that only men would hash this out at length before tentatively agreeing that maintaining relationships is important. I even felt bitter while listening. It seemed like a classic example of “feminine” strengths being devalued, left invisible by default. Of course, the conversation’s outcome was better than if they had decided soft skills weren’t worth anything at all — but did it really need to be debated?

I’m an intellect-first, analytical kind of person. I’m also a woman, socialized to be nice and put up with a lot of nonsense from other people. Maybe the combination of those contradictory tendencies makes it easy to realize that you need to present information in a way that people find acceptable. Intellectual merit isn’t everything — in fact, it isn’t anything without soft skills. Smart people who can’t work with other people aren’t going to get anything done. (To be clear, this is something the Exponent hosts mentioned and agreed on.)

illustration of a good idea taking off
Illustration by Senya Pixelev.

Of course, I went through the same personal-growth phase that Allworth and Thompson also discussed, aggressively wanting to be right and constantly believing that I knew best, before I realized that a good idea you can’t get anyone to buy into has the same results as a bad idea. That’s really my whole point here:

A good idea that you can’t persuade people to believe in is functionally the same as a bad idea.

Even famously brutal tech founders like Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, and Jeff Bezos had to figure out people-friendly ways to present their plans. We know this happened in part because otherwise Apple, Microsoft, and Amazon wouldn’t be iconic companies.

Luckily, collaborators can give each other straightforward feedback without being cruel. Thompson and Allworth do it on the podcast all the time! (More on this in an upcoming review of Ask a Manager blogger Alison Green’s book Managing to Save the World.) I think that’s why I was so frustrated — the necessity of niceness, or at least courtesy, seems utterly obvious, even if only based on their own dynamic. I don’t think the topic shouldn’t have been mentioned — here I am mentioning it at length — but I wonder why the conclusion surprised them.

Efforts Toward Peace of Mind

"Constant vigilance!" Mad-Eye Moody from Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire.
Mad-Eye Moody from the Harry Potter series.

I try very hard to be patient and I try very hard to be positive. Succeeding — well, even attempting to succeed — requires constant vigilance. The world is naturally aggravating! Therefore it’s hard to stay levelheaded, compassionate, and cheerful. (Oops, I’m being negative again. Sorry, world, maybe I shouldn’t have criticized you…) Luckily, I am motivated to be easygoing and smiley. The reasons to keep striving are twofold:

  1. When I resist irritation and the impulse to complain, my life is calmer and more pleasant.
  2. The people I interact with are more likely to perceive me as calm and pleasant.

Both of these things are good. I want to feel better, and I don’t want to annoy my colleagues, friends, or family. Of course, my therapist would disapprove if I flat-out ignored my feelings, but I can acknowledge emotional reactions without letting them be in charge.

"The sink is experiencing technical difficulties. Please stand by." Photo by Keith. Sometimes I am this sink.
“The sink is experiencing technical difficulties. Please stand by.” Photo by Keith. Sometimes I am this sink.

Stomping on anger and frustration, pretending that they don’t exist, is not an effective coping technique. And yet neither is griping. In 2014 Fast Company talked to Jeffrey Lohr, who coauthored a study called “The Pseudopsychology of Venting in the Treatment of Anger”. Lohr and his fellow researchers found out that venting reinforces anger rather than relieving it.*

As Doctor Guy Winch writes on Psychology Today:

“[We] associate the act of complaining with venting far more than we do with problem solving. As a result, we complain simply to get things off our chest, not to resolve problems or to create change, rendering the vast majority of our complaints completely ineffective. Even when we do address our complaints to the people who can do something about them, we tend to be unsuccessful far more often than not.”

We’re not very good at talking to each other. According to Fast Company, “Instead of anger management skills, Lohr says people need to learn conflict resolution and communication skills.”

just listen to her
Listening is the most important part, yeah? Illustration by Rick and/or Brenda Beerhorst.

I’m no expert when it comes to communicating with the people who cause my frustration. But I’m pretty okay at communicating with my own brain. When I notice that I’m upset, this is what I tell myself:

“Everyone is doing the best they can despite their ignorance, weaknesses, and flaws. Respect that they’re trying. You have weaknesses and flaws too, Sonya, and you don’t know everything in the world, but you’re not a bad person. Neither is [whoever]. Respond with the kindness that all human beings deserve.”

My mantra isn’t always effective, depending on how annoyed I am and how preventable the problem seems, but at least it buoys the self I want to be. My knee-jerk reaction is, “Ugh, I hate these morons,” but my secondary reaction is, “This, too, shall pass away.” It helps when I remind myself that nursing anger doesn’t accomplish anything. I want to be forgiving. I want to be loving. Like I said in the beginning: patient and positive.

If only I could be totally stoked all the time like this somewhat unsettling "Happy Pill" by formatbrain.
If only I could be totally stoked all the time like this somewhat unsettling “Happy Pill” by formatbrain.

*Jeffrey Lohr’s paper “The Pseudopsychology of Venting in the Treatment of Anger” was published in Scientific Review of Mental Health Practice in 2007. David McRaney also wrote a good article about this called “Catharsis”.

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